Brenda Lee at the Blue Gate
Brenda Lee was one of the 1960s’ most popular artists. Best known for her “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” her career has spanned over five decades.
Born Brenda Mae Tarpley on December 11, 1944, in Atlanta Georgia, Brenda Lee’s recording career has been going strong since 1947. By the time she was fifteen, Lee was being compared to the legendary Judy Garland and had fans all over the world. Along the way, she has received awards and accolades from the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Born Brenda Mae Tarpley on December 11, 1944 in Atlanta GA., Brenda Lee’s recording career has spanned an unbelievable five decades. Brenda’s parents, Grayce and Reuben, were poor but managed to support their children through carpentry and long hours in the Georgia cotton mills. Brenda sang from the time she was a baby. When her sister entered her into a talent contest when she was three, Brenda won. She continued to sing at local halls and baseball games. When she was only eight years old, Brenda’s loving father was tragically killed in a construction accident. Brenda’s singing jobs became necessary to the financial survival of her family.
Brenda and her mother Grayce worked tirelessly getting Brenda singing jobs. A local DJ named Peanuts Fairclough shortened her name from Brenda Mae Tarpley to Brenda Lee saying that it would be easier to remember when she was famous. Brenda’s mother remarried a man named Jay Rainwater who opened a record store where Brenda sang on weekends. Her first break came in 1955 when she was only ten. She turned down a performing gig in order to meet Country & Western star Red Foley. He was blown away by the little girl’s incredibly powerful voice. Foley put her on his popular country music television show, Ozark Jubilee, “The Junior Jamboree” edition, and Brenda was a sensation when she sang songs like “Jambalya” and the explosive, “Dynamite.” From that day on, Brenda was nicknamed, Little Miss Dynamite.
In 1957, the family eventually moved to Nashville where Brenda was taken under the wing of manger Dub Allbritten and the legendary producer Owen Bradley. These two men were both very loving father figures in her life. Young Brenda toured the country with stars like Patsy Cline, Mel Tillis, and George Jones. By 12, she starred at the Grand Ole Opry and in Vegas. In September of 1959, Brenda rocketed to number one on the Rock and Roll charts with, “Sweet Nothings.” Although Brenda was making good money, most of it was held in trust until she was 21 due to the Jackie Coogan Law. In 1959, Brenda’s stepfather deserted the family leaving them broke. Even though 15-year-old Brenda was touring the world and singing her heart out, Brenda, her mother, her brother and two sisters were forced to live in a trailer park on 75 dollars a month. In 1960, Brenda hit the top of the charts with “I’m Sorry.” It was her biggest hit to date and won her both a Grammy nomination and a gold record. She petitioned the court to let her have a little more money and get her family out of the trailer park. She won and bought her mom a house, which subsequently burned down.
Marriage and Children
Brenda with her huge singing voice and her diminutive stature (she was only 4’9″ tall) was confusing for the foreign press who had not seen her in person. A rumor began circulating in France that she was a “32- year-old midget.” Her tour in France at the tender age of 15 led to over-engagements. The normally blase French press compared her to the legendary Judy Garland. She had fans all over the world. At the age of 18, she met and fell in love with Ronnie Shacklett (6’4″ tall). Against the wishes of her manager and her mother, they were married. They had two daughters, Julie and Jolie. Julie’s birth was very traumatic. She was born with a Hyalin Membrane disease and was not expected to live. Her life was saved by the brilliance of Dr. Mildred Stalman-the same doctor who had attended the births of the Kennedy Children.
It was the mid 1960’s, and the Beatles had taken over the North American music scene. Her longtime manager and father figure Dub Allbritten died. Brenda became depressed and could not find a place for herself in the music industry that she loved so much. And the years on the road caught up with her. In 1974, Brenda was rushed to hospital with life threatening blood clots. Emergency surgery saved her life. Eventually, Brenda returned to her country and western roots. In late 1974, she recorded songwriter Kris Kristopherson’s first song, “Nobody Wins.” It hit the top ten on the Country Charts, and Brenda was back on top with a string of C&W hits. She received awards and accolades from The Georgia Music Hall of Fame and The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Brenda continued to perform and tour at a relentless pace. Her 1989 appearance on K.D. Lang’s album Shadowland gave her yet another Grammy nomination. In 1998, Owen Bradley died, and Brenda was completely devastated. She mustered every fiber in her being to sing “There Will Be Peace In the Valley” at his funeral. In 1999, Brenda was diagnosed with cysts on her vocal chords. Facing surgery that may permanently damage her vocal chords, Brenda chose instead to take time off and rest. Although not cured, the damage has been halted. Still married to her loving Ronnie and with her children close by, Brenda continues to sing her heart out for audiences all over the world. She is still “Little Miss Dynamite.” Editors, Biography.com “Brenda Lee Biography.” The Biography.com website. A&E Television Networks, December 28, 2015. Web. August 30, 2016.